When the Kootenay Ice moved to Winnipeg in 2019, giving the WHL a presence in each of Western Canada's four largest cities for the first time in decades, the move was met not with acclaim but with derision. The reason is one that is familiar in the history of the Ice franchise: the team started in 1996 in Edmonton, but moved away after a scant two years because of outright hostility from the NHL team nearby. The Winnipeg Jets already play at the only large spectator arena in the city, and moreover, they're already marketing their own affordable, family-friendly version of hockey to Winnipeg hockey fans as their own AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, play at Canada Life Centre alongside the Jets. So where did that leave the Ice, and why would Winnipeg be different from Edmonton?
It wouldn't be, as it turned out. The COVID-19 pandemic played a role, but Ice ownership's promises about having shovels in the ground on a new, junior-sized arena in Winnipeg turned out to be much hot air, and in 2023 the plug was pulled. The Ice moved to Wenatchee, Washington to become the Wild, and Wayne Fleming Arena is back to being a university hockey rink.
The arena itself is part of the Max Bell Centre sportsplex on the campus of the University of Manitoba. It's adjacent to the new stadium that's now home to the CFL's Blue Bombers in the south end of the city, and it feels like any other university building built since the Second World War - spartan, blending into its surroundings in a green and leafy campus. The arena is grey brick and has some odd primary coloured pop art installed on one exterior wall, and the main entrance is practically hidden from the outside, tucked into a far corner down an alley.
Inside, Max Bell Centre feels like any other university sportsplex, with an attached fieldhouse that is used by the university's basketball and track teams. The arena is on the right from the main entrance, and entry to spectator seating is up a flight of stairs. The bowl itself, if one can call it that, is C-shaped. Seating extends around three sides of the ice, all light wood benches with backrests. On the fourth side is merely a bare wall. The wall side is an exterior wall, so there's no structural reason why the arena couldn't be expanded to a full bowl if the Ice had ever wanted to pay for it in a building they'll never own.
Wayne Fleming Arena was never intended to be the Ice's permanent home in Winnipeg and would never have been a CHL-calibre facility without spending more money than it would be worth compared with the cost of building their own new one from scratch. That also never happened, and the WHL is once again gone from Winnipeg. One hopes if they ever return, it will be with the Jets' blessing, as it's hard to conceive of it ever working permanently without that.